Hookah coals blamed, man charged in pavilion fire at Bde Maka Ska

An excavator and other construction equipment sit outside.
An excavator and other construction equipment sit outside of the burnt pavilion at Bde Maka Ska. Hennepin County prosecutors say they've charged a man in connection with the May 16 fire.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 7:45 p.m. | Posted: 2:37 p.m.

An attempted hookah session gone wrong appears to be the explanation for the May 16 fire that leveled the pavilion and restaurant at Bde Maka Ska, also known as Lake Calhoun.

Nouh Elmi, 23, was charged with a single count of negligent fire causing property damage of more than $2,500, a felony, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office said Wednesday.

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City fire officials had initially suggested a lightning strike was to blame given the strong storms that moved through the region that night and the descriptions of loud booms heard by neighbors.

Days later, though, police, ruled out lightning as a factor and said they were instead looking for a man and a woman seen on surveillance images by the pavilion between 3 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. when the fire happened.

MPD is seeking the help of the public in identifying two individuals.
A hookah session gone wrong appears to be the explanation of the May 16 fire.
Courtesy of Minneapolis Police Department

In the criminal complaint made public Wednesday, prosecutors say at about 2:45 a.m. Elmi and a woman approached the pavilion from the south and sat at table close to the building, and that Elmi took out a hookah from a bag and tried to light it a few minutes later.

"The video shows the wind from an approaching storm made lighting the coals used for the hookah difficult, but eventually the video shows glowing embers," the county attorney's office said, adding that, "about 20 minutes later, Elmi dumped the embers from the hookah behind the three trash cans. The area was protected from the rain but not the wind."

Surveillance video showed flames appearing at the base of one of the columns, which are hollow. A negative air flow sucked the flame into the space, igniting the interior walls and moving to the roof so that by 3:42 a.m., the building was engulfed in flames, the complaint says.

Firefighters afterward noticed three garbage cans, without lids, in the southwest corner of the building. The roof above the cans was burned and sagging and other signs indicated fire started behind the three cans at the base of the wall.

The fire destroyed the nearly 90-year-old pavilion and its restaurant, Lola on the Lake. Damage was estimated at $2 million. No one was injured.

In a statement Wednesday, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Brad Bourn said, "Our parks are for everyone and we're focusing on restorative efforts after the fire at Bde Maka Ska. We also value a justice system that is restorative, instead of punitive."

Elmi's first court appearance is set for July 10.

Video from May 16